“Reading and writing—it’s such a basic human thing,” Paul says in what even he’d admit is a vocabulary-challenged summation of the enduring appeal of Scrabble. Why, in a time of declining literacy, of “redonkulous” and “chillaxin’, ” does the game (and its many iterations) not only thrive but also maintain its fierce hold on us?
“Because it cuts to the root of who we are,” says Stefan Fatsis, the author of the definitive Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players, which chronicles his own ascent in the ranks of the game. “First of all, it combines luck and skill, which is huge because it levels the playing field in some way. If you don’t know as much as your opponent, you can still win. You can just hope against hope that your deficiencies will be compensated for by the luck factor. And it’s true! But the biggest reason [it’s so enduring] is that it uses language. And language is what unites us. You put these things together—luck, skill, language, competition, strategy, a board, points, winning, and losing—and you have the perfect stew for human behavior.”
There’s that, yes. “And,” adds David, back at Newtoy HQ, “the way we created the game, you don’t actually have to know how to spell. You just have to be really good at guessing.”
It’s the thing about Words With Friends that drives purists like Fatsis to distraction: in part to steer clear of Hasbro’s lawyers and in part to make the game more “dramatic” and “fun,” the Bettners have tweaked the Scrabble basics in just enough ways to turn it, for some, into the equivalent of Go Fish. The point values on the tiles have been changed; the premium squares have been moved around the board in such a way that double- and triple-letter opportunities frequently align with double- and triple-word bonuses; most egregiously, players can, without penalty, throw made-up words at the board until one of them sticks. If a wild guess like “abomh” doesn’t fly, “abohm” (a basic unit of electrical resistance) will. The Rangers call these types of cheaters “pluggers.”
“Yeah,” says Fatsis, good-naturedly mimicking a Words With Friends enthusiast, “I only scored 280 points on Scrabble, but, wow, I got 612 playing Words With Friends!”
Chow is having none of it. “Scrabble,” he says blasphemously about what many consider to be the perfectly conceived board game and an irreplaceable piece of Americana, “isn’t necessarily the best implementation of this game. That was our starting point.”
Just by virtue of the fact that he has seen a gym and the sun in the past few months, the Newtoy COO—buff, tanned, groomed—stands out among his pasty team of code crunchers. He’s an interesting mix of effusive kid and Ivy League intellect. Growing up near the brothers in Florida, Chow claims Paul and David Bettner were his favorite cousins. “If you can say that without sounding like an ass,” he blurts. Even so, he initially turned down two or three offers to run the business side of Newtoy. It just didn’t fit his five-year plan, which involved work in renewable energy in Japan and, eventually, law school. He finally relented when it dawned on him how much he has always loved video games.
“Joining Newtoy,” he says in inimitable Cambridge dude-speak, “has sucked me into the vortex of entrepreneurial excitement and awesomeness.”
For an international relations major whose experience in the extremely complex gaming industry is, in his words, “exactly none,” he has a suddenly booming business to corral and shape. Take, for example, their cash cow Words With Friends. The app can be downloaded from the iTunes Store in one of two ways: as a “free” version laden with ads that pop up as you play or as an ad-free à la carte purchase for $2.99. (Until March, the game sold for $1.99, but its popularity has been so explosive that a price increase was necessary to offset Newtoy’s now $60,000-a-month server expenses.) The paid version is a straight-up calculation for Chow and company. Apple skims 30 percent off the top, leaving Newtoy with a fat 70 percent takeaway. Chow and the Bettners decline to break down the number of paid vs. free downloads (and Apple, famously, does not provide iTunes Store figures), but if only 10 percent of the 4.5 million total were à la carte purchases, that represents (at the $1.99 price) a gross of almost three-quarters of a million dollars.
According to Chow, the free version of the app can generate more revenue or sometimes less per download than the paid version, depending on predictable seasonal cycles and the unpredictable ups and downs of the ad market. But here’s the twist, and why you’re bound to see the free-game model proliferate at the app store: those ad dollars will keep rolling into Newtoy for as long as its users keep turning back to the game, which could be years. Even at the modest calculation of a buck of ad revenue generated for each of, say, 4 million free downloads, that’s in the range of a $2.5 million gross after an ad agency’s standard 40 percent cut.
And the “games with friends” franchise has only just begun to bloom. The Bettners expect to have at least two more apps ready for market in 2010. By June 1, Newtoy will be settled into new digs, swapping their 1,200-square-foot space in a flour mill for a 5,000-square-foot pad just down the road in a converted cotton mill. Two new staffers will soon be onboard. And at what Paul estimates to be a compounding 10 percent growth per week, Words With Friends, astonishingly, continues to outsell and out-gross Electronic Arts’ official Scrabble iPhone app. The bottom line is looking so fat, in fact, that suitors are at the door.
“We have been entertaining conversations from many different, very, very awesome companies about acquiring Newtoy,” Chow says. “We just haven’t made the decision yet that it’s something we want to go forward with. We really like having control over our own destiny—our agency, so to speak. Our attorneys say, ‘Well, eventually that’s going to change because the amount of money that’s going to be offered to you is just silly money, and then you can’t turn it down.’ Maybe that’s true, but it doesn’t ring true for us yet.”
Besides, the Bettners have something more pressing than mergers on their minds: the collateral damage of a run-amok hit. Paul’s mother-in-law, in McKinney, is complaining that her knitting group has been invaded by Words With Friends but that they’ve had to embargo it because the ladies’ ferocious competitive streaks are tearing the fabric of their friendships.
David is in a pickle of his own. His fiancée gets paralyzed when she plays because she’s afraid her word choices will be a referendum on her intelligence.
It gets even worse. “Recently,” David says, “I had my mom call from Florida in the middle of the day. ‘Your servers are down!’ she yelled at me. ‘Fix your s---!’ And I’m like, I don’t need this.”
John McAlley is a contributing editor at NPR.org.